Filmmaker Q&A: Shawn Heinrichs

Befriending Giants

Faced with the global destruction of shark populations, we are constantly seeking common ground--a place where both fishermen and conservationists have a shared interest in protecting shark populations. Tourism, with all its imperfections, may provide the greatest incentive for this local community to protect these vulnerable animals. The human connection with nature is vital, and when local communities have a real stake in preserving nature, we find the key to sustainable conservation outcomes.

Local fishermen in Oslob, Philippines, have formed a unique a relationship with the whale sharks that feed in the waters of their village. When the fishermen discovered that whale sharks were competing for their shrimp catch, they decided to share their catch with the whale sharks, believing this would bring good luck. Befriending Giants tells their tale. We talked with filmmaker Shawn Heinrichs about his experience making the film, which screens at 1:00 pm on Saturday, March 9, as part of the Shark Program at the 2013 San Francisco International Ocean Film Festival.

What was your inspiration for creating the film? The connection between a poor coastal community and these amazing whale sharks was so profound, I just had to tell the story. It is so rare to see a community engaged in conserving these vulnerable creatures when all too often communities are profiting from killing them. We have to get practical and open our minds to real solutions.

What was the most challenging part of creating the film? I was completely unprepared for the discovery of this community and their relationship with whale sharks. Everything had to be done in the moment, including sleeping on the beach, filming at 3:00 am in dugout canoes, waking at 6:00 am to shoot again, running on drained batteries, rapidly filling flash cards, and getting a few bites of food!

What do you want to impart on your film’s viewers? The feeding of the whale sharks raises legitimate concerns about possible negative impacts on the well-being of these animals. Although in this case, the whale sharks are feeding on the naturally occurring shrimp, with the morning hand-feeding offering only a small additional supplement. The greatest threat to the whale sharks is illegal poaching. The fishermen recounted a time in late 1990’s, when fishermen from the neighboring island of Bohol came over and harpooned and finned every last whale shark. Now a decade later, some whale sharks have finally returned to the waters of this village. Tourism, with all its imperfections, may provide the greatest incentive for this local community to protect these vulnerable animals from a repeat of what happened a decade ago.

What was the most enjoyable part of creating the film? I most enjoyed spending the evening and morning with the wonderful fishermen, learning about their world, experiencing a glimpse of their lives, and capturing their incredible story!

Who (or what) is your inspiration? The fishermen and their fantastic story inspired me most to make this film.

How or why did you begin creating ocean-focused films? I was born in Durban, South Africa, and from a very young age, I have shown a passion for adventure and nature. As a child, I traveled with my father to remote villages in southern Africa, explored South Africa's Drakenberg Mountains, the Wild Coast, and spent countless hours playing on beaches. My passion for the oceans has ultimately led me to become a cinematographer, scuba diver, and marine conservationist.

Why did you choose to submit your film to the San Francisco International Ocean Film Festival? The San Francisco International Ocean Film Festival is a celebration of the oceans, with a true commitment to inspiring its conservation. I have participated in the festival in prior years and have always been impressed by the quality of films, the passion of the filmmakers, and the commitment of the organizers.

Is this your first time participating in an ocean-focused film festival? No. Several years running now.

What was the most memorable moment in creating the film? The most memorable moment in making this film occurred when I first arrived by boat at the village. Before my very eyes, I witnessed fishermen paddling around in dugout canoes with whale sharks following them back and forth... simply incredible!

Befriending Giants screens at 1:00 pm on Saturday, March 9, as part of the Shark Program at the 2013 San Francisco International Ocean Film Festival.